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The Peninsular War, 1808-1814, was A bloodbath that may have cost the lives of 500,000 people, the Peninsular War was the fruit of over-confidence, folie de grandeur and miscalculation. In October 1807 with the permission and assistance of the Spanish government, French troops were sent by Napoleon to occupy Portugal in order to close it off to British trade. The royal family escaped to Brazil, but resistance was non-existent, and there seems little reason to believe that the French would have experienced more than minor local difficulties in the ordinary course of events. However, impelled by little more than opportunism, as autumn turned to winter Napoleon resolved on intervention in the complicated politics of the Spanish court, his aim being to make Spain a more effective ally. This proved a disastrous mistake. In March 1808 a palace coup had replaced King Charles IV with the heir to the throne, Ferdinand VII. Thanks to the propaganda of powerful elements of the Church and aristocracy bent on opposing Bourbon reformism, who had seized on the vacuous and malleable Ferdinand as a trojan horse, the new king had come to be seen as a 'Prince Charming' who would put all Spain's many ills to rights. French intervention, and, more specifically, the invitation of the entire royal family to a 'conference' with Napoleon in Bayonne, therefore provoked unrest: there was, for example, a serious rising in Madrid on May 2. In consequence, news that Ferdinand had been forced to abdicate in favour of Napoleon's brother, Joseph, was the catalyst for a series of revolts in the many parts of the country that had remained unoccupied by the French, a similar wave of rebellion soon gripping Portugal.

The nature of this revolt has been widely misunderstood. The subject is a complex one, but in short it was not the unanimous uprising for God, king and fatherland of legend.  Popular concern was not for the Bourbons or the Braganças, but rather land, bread and revenge on the propertied classes, whilst the leaders of the insurrection entertained a variety of conflicting interests which they sought to pursue at the same time as channelling the people's energies into fighting the French. In consequence, the political history of the war is one of great complexity - its chief feature is the elaboration of a liberal constitution in Spain in 1812 - whilst the background to the struggle was everywhere one of desertion, banditry, agrarian unrest, and resistance to conscription. In those areas actually occupied by the French, true, the invaders were inconvenienced by much irregular resistance, but close analysis of this phenomenon has suggested that in most cases it bore little resemblance to the legend so beloved of the traditional historiography. On close inspection, indeed, much of the ‘little war’ proves to have been the work of forces of regular troops or local militias raised and controlled by representatives of the Patriot state. At the same time, such irregular bands as were formed were drawn in large part from men who had either already been bandits in 1808, or been drawn into banditry since the start of the war (a prime example here is constituted by the many men who fled to the hills to avoid conscription to the Spanish army, or who had deserted after being called up). With other men brought in by impressment of one sort or another, it is in consequence hard to see how the Spanish struggle against Napoleon can really merit the description of a ‘people’s war’. All the more is this the case given the fact that those guerrilla bands which were not militarised in the style of such forces commanded by Juan Martín Díez and Francisco Espoz y Mina did not follow the French as they evacuated their areas of operation in the latter part of the war, but rather battened upon the civilian inhabitants and the baggage trains of the Allied armies.   

Militarily speaking, the history of the war is much simpler. Initially, the French armies were roughly handled, the forces sent to Portugal being expelled by a British expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) after a battle at Vimeiro (August 21 1808) and another contingent forced to surrender at Bailén by the Spaniards. Other forces, meanwhile, were repulsed from Valencia and Gerona, whilst Zaragoza beat off a full-scale siege despite the fact that it was devoid of regular fortifications. Forced to draw back beyond the River Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements, whilst Napoleon himself came to Spain to take charge of operations. There followed a whirlwind campaign which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros, Gamonal, Tudela and Somosierra. With the Spanish armies in tatters, on December 4 the emperor therefore recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona, the Spaniards having been routed by fresh forces dispatched from France at Cardedeu and Molins de Rei. With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to over-run the entire Peninsula and end the war at a stroke. All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Sir John Moore. For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to get ready for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French communications in Old Castile. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy, but so many troops were pulled after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the moment of victory.

The campaign of November 1808-January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. In brief, the French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, whilst Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levant, Andalucía and Extremadura. As for Portugal, she, too, was in Allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese themselves could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida and Oporto. Called away from Spain by growing fears of a new war with Austria, Napoleon had left instructions for the various commanders he had left in Spain - most notably, Soult, Ney and Victor - to crush Allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered: the Spanish armies defending Andalucía proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence on Portugal and, now commanded once again by Sir Arthur Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Zaragoza and Gerona both put up desperate resistance (in the case of Gerona, indeed, it did not fall until December). By the summer, then, the initiative had passed to the Allies, the rest of the year being dominated by two major attempts to recover Madrid. Of these, the first - an Anglo-Spanish offensive from the west and south - led merely to stalemate. Thus, a major triumph at Talavera was deprived of all effect, first, by the arrival of massive French reinforcements released by the fortuitous evacuation of Galicia one month earlier, and, second, serious divisions in the Allied command. The second offensive, however, was a far more serious affair. In the wake of Talavera, Wellesley - now Lord Wellington - refused to engage in any further operations with the Spaniards, and pulled his men back to the Portuguese frontier. In consequence, the offensive was the work of the Spaniards alone. Operating on exterior lines from the north-west, the west and the south in terrain that greatly favoured the vastly superior French cavalry, however, they had no chance and were routed at the battles of Ocaña and Alba de Tormes with terrible losses.

The defeat of the main Spanish field armies and the British decision to concentrate on the defence of Portugal opened a new phase in the conflict. So serious had been the Spanish losses in the campaigns of 1809 that there was little left to put into the line. Nor could these losses be made up: though generous, British supplies of arms and uniforms were insufficient to the task of equipping whole new armies from scratch, whilst resistance to conscription amongst the populace was greater than ever. Meanwhile, with the new Austrian war fought and won, Napoleon was pouring large numbers of fresh troops into Spain, the result being that the initiative passed back to the French. With the Spaniards further emasculated by the outbreak of revolution in Latin America - by now their chief source of revenue - for the next two years the picture is one of constant French advances. City after city fell into the invaders' hands whilst the Spaniards lost more and more of such troops and sinews of war as remained to them. First to fall were Seville, Granada, Córdoba, Málaga and Jaén, all of which were overrun by a massive French offensive in January 1810, whilst these were followed by Oviedo, Astorga, Ciudad Rodrigo, Lérida, Tortosa, Badajoz and Tarragona. By late 1811 all that was left of Patriot Spain was Galicia, the Levante and the blockaded island city of Cádiz, which had in 1810 become the new capital. Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest, whilst much the same is true of the Spanish guerrillas, who at the same time were coming under more and more pressure. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon's commanders could have crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, in 1812 the supply of men dried up, the Armée d'Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As was only to be expected, the result was that the French forces suddenly found themselves badly over-extended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia which they had begun in the autumn of 1811.

What saved the Allied cause in the Peninsula was therefore not Wellington’s genius but rather Napoleon’s errors. This, however, is not to decry the British commander’s very real contribution to the Allied cause. Particular attention should be paid here to his defence of Portugal in 1810-1811. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in 1810, the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine and the consequent destruction of much of the town, and the French moved on towards Lisbon. Wellington, however, had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan for the defence of Portugal. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes toward Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, however, the countryside would continue to be devastated, whilst the Anglo-Portuguese army would continue to fall back on Lisbon, along, or so it was hoped, with the bulk of the civilian population. Waiting for them would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras - an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear - Wellington, for one, certainly had his doubts - but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Buçaco failed due to the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track round Wellington’s northern front, but when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no further. In this situation Masséna did his best, but, deprived of adequate supplies, he could not continue to blockade the lines forever, and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier.

However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorised by the British government to enter Spain once more, he soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French whilst every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counter-offensives, as at Albuera and Fuentes de Oñoro. Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, whilst progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by the fact that the Anglo-Portuguese army lacked an adequate siege train. Of course, the French were in no better state: twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack him in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, whilst an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in Allied hands again) would have been out of the question. But that is not the point, what matters being rather the simple fact that for the whole of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain.

In the autumn of 1811, however, the situation changed dramatically. In the first place, Wellington took delivery of a powerful siege train. And in the second the effect of Napoleon insisting that the French commanders in Spain should continue to expand the territory under their control and, in particular, to continue with the offensive they had launched against Valencia, at the very time that he was pulling men out of Spain and cutting the supply of reinforcements completely destabilised the position on the Portuguese frontier: in brief, the French no longer had the men they needed to contain Wellington. What followed was all too predictable. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, win a major victory at Salamanca and liberate Madrid.  Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal, but the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813.  Aided by the continued attempts of the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph's main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June, after which, Catalonia and a few scattered garrisons aside, most of what remained of his domains had to be evacuated.  Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastián and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren and San Marcial, whilst in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over, the battles that Wellington went on to fight at Orthez and Toulouse really belonging more to the campaign of 1814.

The significance of the Peninsular War was considerable.  British historians have, for obvious reasons, been inclined to emphasise the part that it played in the downfall of Napoleon, whilst the emperor also assigned it much importance, famously calling it his Spanish ulcer. But in this respect its effects have probably been exaggerated. Whilst it inspired many German nationalists, for example, it did not inspire much popular participation in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, nor still less persuade the people of Germany to heed the various attempts to persuade them to rise against Napoleon that were made in the course of 1809. Nor did it do much to erode the emperor’s war-making capacity: it is hard, for instance, to see how the forces caught up in the Peninsular War would have made much difference in Russia in 1812. Nevertheless, the continued struggle in the Peninsula undoubtedly strengthened the credibility of British diplomacy in the period 1812-14 whilst the heavy losses suffered in Spain and Portugal certainly played their part in eroding support for the French ruler in the final crisis of the empire. In Spain and Portugal, by contrast, no-one can doubt its importance. In both states it was the key to liberal revolution, loss of empire and a series of civil wars, whilst in Spain in particular it gave birth to a long tradition of military intervention in politics that culminated in the bloody conflict of 1936-39 and the subsequent dictatorship of General Franco.

Charles J. Esdaile

References and Further Reading
Esdaile, Charles, 2002. The Peninsular War: a New History. London: Penguin.
Oman, Charles, 1902-1930. A History of the Peninsular War. Oxford: Clarendon Press.